A typical classroom at Penn may not always contain typical students.
Every year, a number of employees of Penn — including staff, faculty and administrators — take classes at the University either for credit or just to learn something new.
This year, approximately 1,350 faculty and staff out of 16,500 employees total used their tuition benefits to take classes. According to the University’s Division of Human Resources, the number of employees taking classes is split fairly equally between those seeking graduate degrees and those enrolled at the undergraduate degree or non-degree level.
Executive Director of the Office of Student Affairs Karu Kozuma, who is currently enrolled in a part-time doctoral degree program at the Graduate School of Education, is pursuing his degree to expand his future career horizons.
“There is always a question with a higher degree of whether you will hit a glass ceiling with your career,” Kozuma said.
On the other hand, urban studies professor Elaine Simon enrolled in a fine arts course, “Digital Design Foundations,” last semester simply because she wanted to take a class “totally outside my way of thinking.”
“The interesting part of this class was I had absolutely no advantage,” Simon said. “As far as the technical aspects went, I felt like I was really behind.”
Back to basics
For Josh Wilson, a research assistant in the Operations and Information Management Department at the Wharton School who enrolled in marketing and statistics classes last semester, getting back into a student’s mindset was like riding a bicycle after a long time.
“If you haven’t done it for a while, it’s a bit awkward,” he said.
Experiencing an “ambiguous anxiety” at the start of her fine arts course, Simon questioned whether she could really do what the class demanded of her. Simon, who teaches seniors how to write research papers, witnesses the same phenomenon every year, but from the other side of the classroom.
“I see the same anxiety with my students when they begin the class unsure of whether they can do it,” she said. “It’s great to have this experience and be able to empathize with students.”
Associate Professor of classical studies Cam Grey began his masters program in environmental studies this semester. Finding himself outside his comfort zone, Grey said the experience has been humbling.
“I am at the bottom of a very steep learning curve, and that’s terrifying,” Grey said. “But it is also really cool.”
An unlikely combination alongside classical studies, environmental studies came to Grey’s mind as he started to do excavation work in Italy and began to work with pollen experts, geologists and archeologists.
“If I understand more about what they do, I can ask better questions,” Grey said. “If I can ask them better questions, then we can get better answers.”
However, transitioning from employee to student is not always a straightforward journey.
Kozuma finds he has to tread a fine line between being an administrator and being a student. He points out that as head of OSA, his classmates are also the people he serves.
“There are certain things I have to be cautious about,” Kozuma said. “Because I am an administrator, I cannot hang out with students the way I ordinarily would.”
He said his position as an employee of Penn may distance some peers in class from him.
“Because students know I am an administrator, they are not really opening up their hearts to me,” he joked.
On the other hand, Grey found himself in an enviable position when given a particularly hard assignment in one of his classes. After numerous attempts trying to understand the problem set, Grey approached the professor, a good friend of his, and asked him to help solve the assignment.
Grey acknowledged that the issue of enrolling in a class taught by a close friend was a point of concern before the semester started. Ultimately, however, Grey said he sought help for reasons other than grades.
“For me, the bottom line is I am doing this to get skills,” he said.
Grey has so far managed to hide the fact that he is a professor from his classmates.
“I am a neophyte in this field,” he said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from my fellow students.”
A helping hand
According to Human Resources, Penn’s tuition benefits for faculty and staff cover 100 percent of the tuition for up to six course units per academic year for any credit courses offered by the University.
“[Penn’s tuition benefits] make it possible to pursue academic interests when it might not have been financially possible otherwise,” Terri Ryan, manager of Strategic Communications for Human Resources, said in an email. “The knowledge and degrees gained have helped numerous faculty and staff advance in their careers at Penn.”
Lewis added that usage of tuition benefits has remained fairly stable over the past several years.
Vice Dean of the College of Liberal and Professional Studies Nora Lewis believes that one of the strengths of LPS’ programs is the flexibility it offers Penn employees, who have jobs and families as additional responsibilities.
“Our programs are designed to be accessible to working professionals whether they are working at Penn or elsewhere,” she said.
However, Lewis emphasized that all employees at Penn who also wish to take classes must go through the same application process to be admitted to the University that any student would. Applications typically include transcripts, letters of recommendation and personal statements.
“Once they are admitted … employees are treated as any student would be,” Lewis said.